Sunday, July 7, 2013

A House of Books...

Reading can make writers think about truths beyond their own pen and can dare them to pen truth into their fictional stories. So, here's my "What are you reading" update that David likes to ask us writers every so often. And often, I don't have an answer; rather, my answer is always the same: "Re-reading something-something, and still researching on the web" that - fairly - leaves me open to suggestions on what I could be reading.

I went a little nuts on Amazon recently and ordered from a list of books that I thought would be swell to have for researching the multiple stories I am writing...if in irregular turns. I barely have time to make time to write and research, so this was a gutsy decision on my part to offset writing time with even more research than I already do. And it takes me a lot of time to actually finish a book. I'm not a slow reader; just a careful one.

So, like a kid on Christmas Day, I couldn't help unwrapping a book once it arrived and start reading and dog-earing the pages until the other book arrived, and so on. Between three books from mail and a book given to me on my birthday, I now have reading material spread about my house in true hoarder's fashion (though much tidier than what's shown on TV). In a fantastical, simultaneous, concurrent kind of research process, I am reading historical accounts on the Old West, Ireland, and a sultry Berlin between the wars. Please allow me show you around my house.

Splayed on the washer is Gary Speck's Ghost Towns. It's opened onto pages describing Silver City, Idaho, circa 1900. I am writing a story set in Virginia City, Nevada that takes place just before the second big Comstock strike. I was curious to know of similar mining cities; especially those that grew around the same time. Ah! What I would do to walk those boardwalks in Boom Time. I'd look the part, too: a moderately dressed businessman on my way to the bank - I won't smile; only tip my hat when pressed. Or, perhaps I would be a rugged miner who had nothing to lose but my life and the affection of a lovely girl I had met the night before at the International Inn. She can change her ways; I'll just know she can!

Whatever part I would play, I'd make sure to pack my asthma inhaler.

But the true Old West research is done with James & Raymond's Comstock Women. Loaded with census records, pictures, and details from personal diaries and interviews of original Virginia City residents, I am both validating and readjusting characteristics that I created for one of my main protagonists, Lillian Strathmore; an Irish immigrant and fed-up wife to a kind, yet socially inept English Geologist who packed up his family and tore them from their quaint Chicago home to take on an assayist job located in a hot, cold, dusty, sinful, loud, industrial mining town located on the surface of Hell's ceiling. Her words. You'll see Comstock Women on my desk in the former dining room and most likely opened, face-up, with a magnifying glass on top -- to get a closer look at the buildings and landscape...and faces.

Another good read, if more so for visual pleasure, is Gill Davies's Ireland, currently bookmarked on the crumbling yet brilliant, Dunluce Castle. This book has concise historical detail and gorgeous picturesque photos taken across all of Ireland. Such an old, old country, She... As you know, I am writing a series of stories set in Northern Ireland, circa 1790s, and my friends were kind enough to remember this and buy this lovely book. It's great for setting mood, and I can visually place my characters in this natural, living folklore that is Ireland. Yes; it deserves a better placement than on the towel shelf next to my bathroom sink!

I have mentioned that I am also writing a story about a young Frenchman, Gauthier, who joined the Hitlerjugend in a twisted attempt to secure a friendship with an HJ leader who had promised to help free Gauthier's mother -- incarcerated, rightly or wrongly, for spying. Gauthier is homosexual, and he often wonders about the rumors he heard of lively and artistic Berlin-of-old in comparison to what he observes in Hitler's stone-cold Berlin-of-new. In my living room (and sometimes found on the Adirondack chair on my front porch) is What I Saw. This book is a collection of Left-leaning journalist and novelist Joseph Roth's observations of Berlin during the Weimar Republic. It has the feel and structure of a travelogue, although it was meant to be political in nature. Roth's writing is beyond his time in that his subjects were risqué, although his writing was honest in its descriptions. 

What a strange place, that Berlin. I am captivated reading Roth's immersions of Berlin's hustle and bustle, jazzed, red-lighted, and Hollywood-style entertainment industries; his encounters with Berlin's wealthy and impoverished; his interpretations of Berlin's famous and infamous cosmopolitan makeup. I find myself asking: This...was...Berlin? Roth's writing style, too, is just as interesting and odd for a journalist; a kind of impressionist narration describing the Jews escaping Ukraine as caught peoples and so, too, the artists who came to Berlin from abroad. He also describes the ever-present "displaced" persons - the homeless -- and the wealthy visitors who come to shop the large department stores and, late into the night, sip down or divulge in the sins...blindly or among the seedy underworld layers of pimps, prostitutes, thugs, and thieves-- all in a time just before and during Hitler's rise.

Lately, I have been taking What I Saw to my bedroom, reading a few passages until I must force myself to go to sleep; dog-ear the page that I most likely read twice and then place the book on my wobbly nightstand and set my glasses on top of it along with my alarm-set cell phone. I then lay my head on the pillow and think how grateful I am that it is only a typical Indy evening beyond my drawn curtains; beyond my house of books, and not Berlin, 1939. What a shame, I realize as I lie in bed, that I can't go back in time and whisper a warning into the ears of the Jews and the homosexuals and the downtrodden of that terrible shadow of hate about to cast over their worlds.

What a luxury it is to read about all persons and things past. I know of events that they could not know as thoroughly with our vast wealth of data. I can also predict, in foresight accuracy, what became of their struggles, their families, their lands...their dusty cities of gold and silver.

 I hope that my reading of lives lived fifty or hundreds of years ago and places found thousands of miles beyond my window will transfer truths from my pen to my little fictional tales. I've got to get it right so my characters can perform in truthful, realistic settings and events. Yes, this is what reading can do for a writer: getting things right.


  1. I wish I could delve into the wonders of the past the way you do, but it's true that the research is overwhelming. Maybe that's why I stick to my contemporary stories. The research about past times seems overwhelming.

  2. Fascinating stuff, Randy, even just from reading your teaser notes for each of your projects. Books are wonderful, aren't they?!! I always encourage writers to not only read for research in terms of locale or customs, psychology or emotional conditions, or even the details of a submarine or the structure of a piano concerto, but also, and foremost, to read fiction in their own chosen genre. Reading the competition and the heritage--as well as great fiction in any area--is the single best way to improve your own writing. With ebooks and used books available on the internet, not to mention good old libraries, there's no reason why a writer has to say they couldn't find book x because they couldn't get a copy anymore, right? So stay reading, my friends!

    BTW, H, in past times, the rain and snow still chilled, food and wine were enjoyed, and sex was still eagerly sought, so maybe that research needn't be so overwhelming after all!

  3. Thanks for bringing us inside your mind and your method of research. I love that you get so excited about the research itself. I don't see how you can do multiple projects simultaneously though. I would want to dive into one and see it completely through before moving on to another. Incredible!

  4. That's because you are a logical man, Keith! And hey, David. Do you think the Victorians knew there were up to fifty possible shades of gray?

  5. Since the Victorians weren't as distracted as we are, they actually had about a thousand shades....

  6. "Why are we reading, if not in hope of beauty laid bare, life heightened and its deepest mystery probed? Can the writer isolate and vivify all in experience that most deeply engages our intellects and our hearts? Why are we reading if not in hope that the writer will magnify and dramatize our days, will illuminate and inspire us with wisdom, courage, and the possibility of meaningfulness, and will press upon our minds the deepest mysteries, so that we may feel again their majesty and power? We still and always want waking.” —Annie Dillard